A Clear but Erroneous Message

In his second state of the nation address, President Aquino traded his old nuanced style in favor of a crisper, cleaner form of delivery, but was it accurate?

It was a speech aimed at the public rather than the pundits. In the past, when seeking to convey his mastery of a subject, Pres Aquino or PNoy would often get lost in the detail of the topic at hand. Whether it was in dealing with the security issues after the January bomb blast or whether it had to do with the specifics of his budget.

Not this time. It was not that his speech was short on specifics. In his nearly hour-long address, the president covered everything from our recent credit upgrades to the US State Department’s downgrading of us in their watchlist of countries involved in human-trafficking, from light monorail to mosquito larvae and coconut coils.

What distinguishes this speech from previous ones is the unifying theme that threaded the whole piece, which was the narrative concerning his crusade against corruption. The appropriately coined term “wang-wang mentality” (so called for the unauthorized use of wang-wangs or sirens symbolic of the sense of entitlement by the powerful enclaves of society) was used as a rhetorical device to sharpen the focus of his theme.

The president spoke of progress in this effort yielding tangible benefits to our economy. He noted the rise of stock prices, the reduction of our rice imports, the decline of poverty and the growth of employment. He attributed these developments to the changes he has made in the running of state agencies from the highy impervious public works department to the grandiosely caffeinated Philippine gaming corporation where he claimed wasteful spending was brought to heel.

Inconvenient Truths

Some analysts have pointed out that the improvement of rice production that led to a lower demand for imports came more as a result of better weather conditions than anything else, and that the reduction of poverty in April came after a jump in January. To this I might add, that the growth in employment is simply unremarkable given the past ten years, and that even with a slight decline in unemployment, the twin problems of high underemployment and low productivity (a result of lesser jobs being created in manufacturing) still prevails.

These of course are the nuances that I said were left out of the equation. These facts were conveniently swept away because they did not fit into the overarching narrative arc of the president’s speech, nor did it fit in with the upbeat “vibe” that he was trying to project.

If we look at the substance and purpose of the speech, which is supposedly the setting of the president’s legislative priorities, we find that in a speech of 5,989 words, the president devoted 116 of them to his proposed measures. That is about 1.9% of the text. He went through his proposals so quickly, that he even failed to give a proper justification for them or a rationale for how these priorities fit within his broad agenda.

No apologies

In a manner of speaking, this was a “no apologies” speech. The president did not report on the state of his much vaunted PPPs or public private partnerships which was the centerpiece of his first SONA, nor did he ask Congress to pursue legislation that would improve its implementation.

After pointing out that

(a)ccording to the BIR, we have around 1.7 million self-employed and professional taxpayers: lawyers, doctors, businessmen who paid a total of 9.8 billion pesos in 2010. This means that each of them paid only an average of 5,783 pesos in income tax—and if this is true, then they each must have earned only 8,500 pesos a month, which is below the minimum wage. I find this hard to believe

he then failed to announce any reforms that would ensure a greater contribution of these privileged few to the national treasury in keeping with his no new taxes pledge which the Movement for Good Governance scored him poorly for.

The president also made no apologies for the slowdown of the economy in the first quarter of the year. Instead, he stuck to his narrative contrasting his righteous way with that of his predecessor. Buoyed by the recent string of whistle-blowers and his new-found ally in the newly designated Ombudsman, he did not hesitate to talk down the opposition or to entreat everyone to praise the “good deeds” of his government.

The president adeptly avoided confrontation with two important but some would say wayward institutions. Having bruised the egos of church leaders in the RH debate as well as the PCSO “cars for clergy” scandal, he diplomatically offered an olive branch to the Catholic bishops who were in the audience. He also made sure to gain the support of the military and the police through his procurement of defense assets and provision of low-cost housing.

He clearly did not want to get side-tracked from his simple narrative that his anti-corruption drive would bring about national development. He even found a way to weave the protection of our sovereignty to his good government agenda.

The need for nuance

The sharpening of the edges around this vision of a nation free of the wang-wang mentality and the personalization of this vision as pronounced by PNoy himself was crafted to appeal to the broader sections of his audience. The president was railing against the very government he led. He spoke as an outsider, as an insurgent much like the late former US president Ronald Reagan who saw it as his task to fight the menace of “big government” or more contemporaneously of British PM David Cameron who seeks to displace it with a “big society”.

If you agree with his thesis that corruption prevents growth, then there will be much in the SONA to cheer about. If on the other hand, you consider the empirical as well as historic evidence that corruption per se is not the culprit, but rather the lack of a coherent bureaucracy around a national development project, then you will recognize the effectiveness of myth-making in public speeches.

Indeed if you believe the former, then everything is fine and dandy. But if you believe the latter, then the lack of substance or clarity on how the government intends to reverse the dangerous trend in our employment mix through some kind of industry or tax policy with the stalling of the government’s major investment strategy means that when the favorable conditions turn sour, as they most certainly will, we are in for a rude awakening somewhere down the track.

One of the best public speakers in his day was George W Bush. He was able to rally his people behind a clean, crisp message against the “evil doers”. He left the incovenient truths and nuances of intelligence out of public debate. Ten years later, we find the repercussions both strategically and economically of this form of “messaging” that have mired his country in a highly polarized debate over the national debt.

The need to speak clearly is one thing, but the need to speak more factually is another. Hopefully in the future, the president’s communications and strategy team will be able to craft a message that marries the two.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy (www.thecusponline.org) and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

  • Bert

    “Some analysts have pointed out that the improvement of rice production that led to a lower demand for imports came more as a result of better weather conditions than anything else,…”-Doy

    “The entire speech was a rehash of what he’s done, or more correctly, what just so happened to occur while he’s been President.”-Ben Kritz

    Wow, what flattering words for Pres. Noynoy, coming from some of the most rabid critics of the present administration.

    Not only that the Filipino citizenry but also the weather came in support of a new president who promised to give the nation good and clean governance.

    Woe to Gloria, who in her almost ten years of bad government good weather/rain seemed never to have occurred naturally, prompting her to import so much rice it’s now rotting inside warehouses.

  • GabbyD

    i dont understand this criticism of pnoy’s citing of an increase in rice production.

    your link says that its based on an increase in land used in production.

    but isnt the govt involved in the expansion of lands used in rice production? (i dont know the answer to this question)

    the expansion of lands is a good first step in production sustainability.

    also, no one mentioned the rehabilitation of rice lands. isnt this govt involved here too?

    • Can you cite a specific program of the Administration to increase rice hectareage or rehabilitate rice-producing farmlands? Monsod and Africa could not. Neither can I. Neither did the SONA’s Technical Report — in that, the increase in production just sort of happened and was credited to the Administration, without any sort of explanation of how they made it so. Maybe Aquino’s mere presence is enough?

      • GabbyD

        a program? like a name? sorri, but i havent been keeping abreast of my “Dept of Agri Quarterly” magazine subscription.

        but the technical report says there was an expansion of land (rehabilitated) to rice production.

        is this not the administration’s doing (and NOT mere luck)?

      • GabbyD

        a program? like a name? sorri, but i havent been keeping abreast of my “Dept of Agri Quarterly” magazine subscription.

        but the technical report says there was an expansion of land (rehabilitated) to rice production.

        is this not the administration’s doing (and NOT mere luck)?

  • Thai Anton

    Thee is corruption in China ,but investors still pour money in that country’s
    Economy, so why not democratic RP ?

  • UP nn Grad

    President NoyNoy cunningly avoided the word underemrployed . when he accusingly mentioned the 1.7 million self-employed of cheating on their income taxes. Cute!!!

    • UP nn Grad

      Seven FEU college graduates. Two are taxpayers, but to USA where they are now OFW’s, yung isa bookkeeper. And three are self-employed in makati, hand-to-mouth still trying to land their first real-job while pa-sideline sideline doing typing or buy-and-sell or kung ano pa man. Pay taxes???? With what daw?

  • UP nn Grad

    PresiNoyiNoy always sends his vote-for-me “I will always take care of you” messages to the AFP and PNP, doesn’t he?

  • Bert

    “Indeed if you believe the former, then everything is fine and dandy. But if you believe the latter,…”-Doy

    As if Noynoy’s kind of governance is either ‘this’ or ‘that’. I don’t think so.

    The president wants to stop corruption, if possible, so critics who will go against that wants to go back to the past. That’s weird considering that his critics also are harping on the president’s preoccupation with corruptions in the past administration. Therefore, the critics are neither here nor there.

    Fact is that the president has stated his own economics and other programs of governance aimed to improve the nation and the people’s present conditions. That’s good.

    All we have to do is see the results at the end of his term.

    In the mean time, we can contribute in what little ways we can, encouraging words included, to help the government attain its objectives.

  • GabbyD

    “you consider the empirical as well as historic evidence that corruption per se is not the culprit, but rather the lack of a coherent bureaucracy around a national development project, ”

    actually, this is aquino’s point as well.

    you and he share the same point.

    • UP nn Grad

      If guLO’s national policy was her KKK’s and “the national highway”, PresiNoy’s national policy would be his KKK’s and K-12? His KKK’s and housing and more equipment for PNP/AFP? His KKK’s and EO-1 sending guLO and her KKK’s to jail? His KKK’s and … Wait, did PresiNoy forget to mention his “5 million new jobs by 2016”?

    • It seemed like perhaps that was the point he thought he wanted to make, but if so, he didn’t give any clues as to how he intends to address that particular point. The entire speech was a rehash of what he’s done, or more correctly, what just so happened to occur while he’s been President.